Be afraid. Be very afraid. The 'Ghost' and the 'Darkness' were two cunning man-eating lions in 1898 (I even had a child's encyclopaedia that mentioned them). This is their story.
We first meet Col. John Patterson (Val Kilmer), a bridge-building engineer-cum-adventurer, as he discovers that his new boss, the obnoxious Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson from the Full Monty) is a ruthless, self-styled `monster'. `You build bridges, John. You have to go where the rivers are', his enormously understanding pregnant wife tells him, but Patterson's maturity and political nous worries and saddens him over his coming separation with Helena (Emily Mortimer) during her pregnancy; so he's determined to return to her before the birth. What a good husband.
But what I like most about this film is its multicultural POV. Clearly the international bridge-building effort (much like Australia's famous Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme of the 1950s) provided a modern setting for a very accessible 1990s screenplay. Samuel (John Kani, in beautiful African garb), the camp's liaison officer and `the only man everyone trusts', gives the newly arriving Patterson a succinct overview of the culture clashes in the camp.
Abdullah (Om Puri) is the recalcitrant/recidivist Indian foreman. I am disappointed in him for his awful line `Of course; you can do anything because you're white' (such defeatist sarcasm conversely also means that anyone who isn't white is incompetent). Thanks Abdullah-your racist attitudes are bad news for EVERYONE.
David Hawthorne (Bernard Hill) is entertaining as the put-upon surgeon. He's coping with an outbreak of malaria, but also an evangelizing lackey of Beaumont's, Angus Starling (Brian McCardie), who is constantly trying to convert everyone to Christianity. The surgeon regularly loses patience with him, for Starling's habitual pestering of the sick (me too! I long for the day when there will be ethical and legal controls on evangelists). Hawthorne is cynical about the whole bridge-building exercise too: `This is a sham, who needs it? ...It's only being built to protect the ivory trade'.
Realistic thrillers are always more frightening than schlocky rubbish. The chills are begun in earnest by Samuel's accented narration (the accent hints at the added stressor of confusion). Our foreboding of dread is soon represented by waves of African grass, which may serve to hide a stalking lion. At 27mins we see our first devastating lion attack, upon the robust, well-respected African foreman Mahina (Henry Cele). Please steel yourself for the sudden strike as the men sleep in the tent. The scene never fails to shock me; and the terror just gets worse. Samuel's narration deepens our fear, giving us a hint of what the men working on that railroad in 1898 must have felt.
Of course, Abdullah The B*st*rd tries to incite a riot, but he is revealed as a liar when, with a gun finally to his own head, he claims `I am a man of peace'. Ha, you're joking, right? Look, I don't mind the workers being fearful; in 3months the lions (the man-eaters don't behave/hunt like any other lions) have killed about 30 men. What I DO mind is some dullard whipping up prejudice and superstition, no doubt, NO DOUBT, for personal gain (whipping up prejudice has ALWAYS been the tool of megalomaniacs, to rally forces behind themselves at the front. You BET it's for personal gain). People like Abdullah belong in jail (what's the bet he already HAD a rap sheet as long as your arm?) ...Anyway, the man who has so cleverly diagnosed the problem is big-game hunter-for-hire, Remington (Michael Douglas). However, Douglas' establishing scene is highly self-serving, as usual: the screenplay has him gaining our acceptance at the cost of the doctor's intelligence. Come on, EVERY African surgeon would know all too well the dangers of hospital decay as an irresistible attraction to lions. Those lines were written only for our foreigners', and Douglas' benefits- he was also Co-Exec Producer. Remington's been hired by the big boss to contain and quell any rumours of delay on the railroad.
Remington is a pretty good hunter. He's wise enough to employ a rolling band of Masai warriors, and together, they act as the `fixers' of Africa. It's very exciting; I've never seen such a thing before. Unfortunately, every trap they set for the lions fails. When Patterson himself finally freezes during a head-to-head confrontation with one of them, even the Masai decide to leave because they have glimpsed the animals' intelligence, and declared them not lions, but `The Ghost' and `The Darkness'.
So Remington and Patterson go out alone, tracking the lions back to their den. Foolishly entering a highly dangerous, enclosed situation, they discover an astonishing sight: the lions' den is littered with dozens of old human skeletons. Upon seeing them, Remington declares that these lions hunt for `pleasure'. Well, actually, I say the lions killed people to make them dead, which is just domination. The lions are clever; they've figured out that they need to get rid of the people taking over what used to be theirs, the lions' territory. It's an interspecies pi**ing contest; and Remington is best when he doesn't underestimate his enemy. He likens the lions to two bullies of his childhood, who separately seemed beatable, `but together were lethal'. I agree; it's no good demonizing the animals. Sure, they were not to be underestimated, but had Remington and Patterson agreed with the Masai that `there was not enough blood in all the world that would make these demons stop drinking', they couldn't've stood up to the bullies. And I think that's always true between humans, too.
I have to again commend Kilmer for his emotional range in the scene with his wife. I truly felt his elation and humility. He kisses her repeatedly for being clean and untouched by the vicious ugliness that's been his life since he entered Africa. His nightmare(s) about lions stalking his family will no doubt haunt him for a long, long time.
I can't fault this movie. 10/10.
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